Taming the Unruly Pie Crust

Yes, it’s time to devote an entire post to discuss pie crust.  Why?  1. Because a lot of people think it’s difficult and really, it’s not that bad.  2. Store bought pie crusts are yucky (they have hydrogenated oil and a bunch of weird things I can’t pronounce) 3. Pie crust is used for SO many things and once you know how to make it, you can put anything you want in them (yesterday I made a kale, belgian endive, and pecorino tart because they were all lying in my fridge begging to be used for something).  And 4. Because I posted the Grand Marnier Orange Walnut Tart yesterday, and you might be less intimidated to make it after reading this post.

There are only a few components in pie crust, and they are flour, fat, and liquid.  I always choose butter as my fat because I think shortening is really gross (it tastes bad and coats your teeth with this awful film), and hydrogenated oil is also really bad for you.

There are three major kinds of pie dough:
*Pate Brisée-This is just plain pie dough, used mostly for savory tarts or quiches.
*Pate Sucrée-This is a sweet dough, and you usually add a tablespoon or so of sugar to sweeten it slightly (I add 1 tbsp sugar per cup of flour)
*Nut or Cheese Dough-You can add a couple tbsp of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or finely ground nuts to replace a small amount of the flour in either a Pate Brisée or Pate Sucrée.

You can make the pie crust three ways: by hand, in the food processor, or in the stand mixer.  Using the food processor is the quickest and by far the easiest method.  Basically, you put flour, sugar if using, and a pinch of salt in, pulse to aerate them, then add the butter, pulse 10 times or so until it gets crumbly, then slowly add some sort of liquid (water, cream, or egg).  Okay, now let’s try!

Yield: 1 standard pie crust

1.25 cups all purpose flour (6 0z)
1 tbsp sugar (if using)
1/8 tsp fine salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/4 cup ice cold water

First, dice your butter up into small pieces, like so:

Put the flour, sugar if using, and salt in a food processor, pulse a couple times to aerate it and combine.  Add the diced up butter and pulse about 10 times, being careful not to overpulse.  You want chickpea size pieces of butter still visible in the dough, like this:

Add the ice water and pulse 2-3 times, so it is evenly distributed.  Now, pinch a small piece of the dough.  Does it crumble or does it hold together?  If it holds together, dump the contents out onto the counter, bring it together with your hands (quickly, so you don’t warm the dough), wrap it in plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge for an hour.  If it crumbles, add more ice cold water.

After the dough is thoroughly chilled, lightly flour your countertop, and start rolling it out into a circle big enough to fill your pie or tart pan.  Roll your dough around a rolling pin to lift it onto your pie plate. Press the dough into your pie or tart pan, and you are ready to proceed with your recipe!

See how the dough is marbled with butter?  That means flaky, delicate, and delicious pie crust.

Important things to remember:
The most important: do not let your pie dough get warm.  If you only focus on one thing, this is the one.  You want to keep the butter from melting, because if it does, you won’t get the crumbly or flaky pie crust you’re working for.

Do not overwork the dough.  In my experience, it is always better to have to patch little parts of the pie together a little bit later rather than have a tough pastry.  When your pie or tart crust is flaky, tender, and delicious, it really accentuates what’s going on in your tart, whether it be something savory or something sweet.  When your pie or tart crust is tough, it tastes like cardboard, and maybe I’m extra picky, but it really detracts from whatever is inside the tart.

Different flours in various parts of the country have different gluten contents, so you will always have to make adjustments to suit the characteristics of your flour, butter, and humidity.  The best way to ensure a good pie crust time after time is to learn how it should feel.

You may have noticed that with all pie crust recipes, you are repeatedly chilling the dough throughout the entire process.  You’re doing this not only to keep the butter from melting, but putting the dough in the refrigerator also allows the gluten to relax.  If you try rolling out your pie dough and it shrinks up (gluten is elastic, and this shows you that there is too much gluten activated), put it back in the refrigerator to rest.  Don’t put the crust in the freezer, because the gluten won’t relax when frozen.

Please post your questions, suggestions, or comments below.  Now, go make some awesome pie crust!

If you want to do some more reading on Pie Crust, check out Baking, and I’m Just Here for More Food in my Cookbooks Actually Worth Buying section.

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6 Responses to Taming the Unruly Pie Crust

  1. crustabakes says:

    What a helpful tutorial on pie crusts! and with lovely pictures too! Great post!

  2. Piper says:

    What is the hand method though? I’ve always been looking for ways to bake by hand (in fact, it tends to be the thing that prevents me from baking) since I never have an electric mixer (too expensive to buy when I’m not quite sure how long I’ll be living abroad!)

    • Piper, even if I use a stand mixer (or electric mixer), most of my recipes can be made by hand (exceptions would be something like a macaron, which is very tedious). I agree, mixers are expensive (mine was a gift) and you don’t want to lug one around while you’re abroad. You can definitely make pie crust by hand, the issues here are the warmth of your hand (it can melt the butter, and you want to keep the butter very very cold) and the other major issue is overworking the dough. When making this by hand, if you can, get a pastry cutter (they’re not expensive) to cut in the butter (or you could try a very strong fork), and throughout the whole process, stick your dough in the fridge frequently to keep it cold. Also, when working the dough, pretend you have arthritis lol. Use a very light hand and just try to keep in mind that the more you work it, the more gluten it will develop, which means a tougher crust. So just remember, arthritis! hahaha.

  3. Colleen M. says:

    I usually struggle with pie crust, so this was great to read before I make pie tomorrow! If I’m making a lattice pie, should I double the recipe? And is it possible to substitute margarine for butter? Thanks for the help Joanne!

    • Joanne says:

      Hey Colleen! You should definitely double the recipe! This is a fairly small amount of dough, just enough for the bottom of a pie.

      I’ve never tried, but my guess is the margarine wouldn’t work. Margarine is typically oil based right? Oil wants to be liquid at room temperature while butter will still stay solid, and you want to keep everything nice and cold so it stays solid. I would think margarine would be trouble.

      Also, make sure you don’t add too much water or overpulse. It’s just fine if the dough looks like a crumbly pile, just pour it into a piece of plastic wrap and use the plastic wrap to press it into a mound to refrigerate. Good luck!!!

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